Welcome to my first double review! In today’s post, I will be reviewing Bill Konigsberg’s 2013 novel Openly Straight and its upcoming 2017 companion Honestly Ben.
I first came across Openly Straight when wandering through a bookstore on a trip to Prince Edward Island in the summer of 2013. It was on a table with an assortment of other teen books, and the cover and title caught my eye. I read the description on the jacket and just knew I had to have this book. I’ve probably read it four or five times in the last three years. Here’s that description:
Rafe is from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He hates tofu. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, of yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since eighth grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all he wants is to be a regular guy. Not that gay guy. To have that be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to become “openly straight” — not so much going back in the closet as starting over outside it. The transformation works: Rafe revels in a new group of straight guy friends, and the chance to be “just Rafe” at last. But things get complicated when he falls in love with one of his new friends… who doesn’t even know that’s a possibility.
A book for anyone who’s ever felt trapped within just one part of who they are, Openly Straight is a funny, smart novel about being out, being real, and all the things “be yourself” can mean.
Ever since first reading Openly Straight, I have felt like I can connect with Rafe’s story. Even ten years since coming out, I sometimes still wonder if I am defined only by my sexuality. While I don’t necessarily believe that, I do find it funny that I am wondering this on my queer-themed blog. But in all seriousness, I am so much more than just gay, just like Rafe is.
When Rafe first begins at the Natick School, he decides to not be openly gay because he’s tired of being known solely for being the gay kid. Not surprisingly, his best friend and his parents are confused by this choice, but Rafe goes through with it anyway. And because we live in a heteronormative society where everyone is presumed to be straight until they’re not, his plan works. At least, at first.
Until Rafe starts to get close with his new straight friend, Ben. And then feelings start to develop. And that’s when things start to get a little bit messy, and Rare soon begins to realize that when you try to hide parts of yourself from the world, you not only end up hurting yourself, but you can hurt others as well.
I really love the way Bill Konigsberg tackles identity in Openly Straight. Rafe has been out for a long time. He is completely okay with who he is, and he has no issues being gay. His main issue is the label and how the “gay” label follows him everywhere. There’s even one instance in the book where one of Rafe’s teachers asks him for the “gay perspective” on something.
Openly Straight is a funny, thought-provoking, and honest novel about what it means to “be yourself”, and how you can find that self when you feel like you’ve been defined by one thing for most of your life. It’s also a lesson in how even the best of intentions can still lead to things getting a little out of control.
Which brings us to… Honestly Ben. When I first finished Openly Straight, I wanted more. I wanted to know what happened next. When I heard that Bill was writing a second book, but this time from Ben’s perspective, I was over the moon. Here’s what it’s about:
Ben Carver is back to normal.
He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stat focused.
There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, goofy, kind, dating someone else… and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.
Perfect for fans of David Levithan and John Green, Honestly Ben is a smart, serious, laugh-out-loud novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever struggled to be “honestly ________” in their lives.
I was actually fortunate enough to be chosen to read an early draft of Honestly Ben about a year ago, and then I recently received an advance reader copy ahead of its release next spring. So I’ve been invested in this story for a while, and let me tell you: it’s everything I wanted.
In Honestly Ben, Bill has written a wonderful and sincere companion to Openly Straight that was just the continuation of the story I wanted, while also giving a beautiful exploration into the mind of Ben Carver, who we first meet through Rafe’s perspective in Openly Straight.
Ben’s a quiet guy who doesn’t say a lot, and Rafe sometimes finds it hard to get a read on him. So I love hearing Ben’s side of things from his perspective in the second book. I love being in Ben’s head, where he is anything but quiet. He is always thinking, sometimes just a bit too much, and he just chooses to keep those thoughts to himself.
Ben struggles to fit in at the Natick School as a scholarship student from a small town in New Hampshire, when almost everyone else is a rich kid that doesn’t need to worry about money or good grades to get a scholarship to pay for college. He also struggles a lot with family expectations. All his life, he’s been told to work hard, not get a big head, and not question things. But what happens when that life just doesn’t work for you anymore?
I also love this book because it’s another wonderful journey about identity, sexuality, and the labels and expectations that others attach to us, and that we sometimes attach to ourselves. It is also an honest reflection on how we can sometimes let ourselves and others down, but still find our way back again.
After all, we are all humans. We make mistakes. And then we learn from them.
Openly Straight is available now. Honestly Ben comes out March 28th, 2017. You can pre-order it now from Indigo by clicking here.
Note: I received an advanced reader copy of Honestly Ben from Scholastic in exchange for an honest review.